Newsrooms Size Up the Acquisition Battlefield

The broadcast industry’s last big format war occurred in the late 1990s, when Sony and Panasonic competed to sell new digital tape formats to broadcasters looking to replace aging analog camcorders and videotape recorders (VTRs) used for news acquisition. Sony’s solution was Betacam SX, a digital version of its industry-standard professional Betacam format, while Panasonic’s offering was DVCPRO, a professional version of the small DV (digital video) standard originally developed for consumer camcorders.

Panasonic largely won that battle, as scores of stations adopted DVCPRO (as well as Sony’s DV-format offering, DVCAM), while only a handful of broadcasters went for the larger, more expensive SX format.

About eight years later, many of those same stations need to replace their first generation of digital-acquisition gear, and Sony and Panasonic are once again competing with different formats. But broadcasters’ choices today are far broader than picking one tape format over another.

Many of the options for acquiring digital video in the field don't use tape at all but instead record on computer-based media-for example, Sony's XDCAM format records on optical disc, while Panasonic's P2 format uses solid-state memory cards.

Also in the mix are hard-disk–based cameras from Ikegami and Thomson Grass Valley. All of these formats record video as digital files. For stations looking to enter high-def production or just produce higher-quality SD, there is HDV, too, a low-cost, compressed DV-based format supported with professional-grade cameras from Sony, JVC and new entrant Canon.

Choosing a particular format entails more than just adopting new cameras and recorders. It often requires a station to significantly change the production workflow in both the field and the newsroom.

“If you look at the last two format wars, it was probably 80% Betacam versus 20% MII [Panasonic's last analog format] and 80% DVCPRO versus 20% Betacam SX,” says Joe Facchini, Panasonic director of product marketing. “I don't know if that is going to happen this time.”

That's because once video leaves the camera, it is increasingly being transferred into nonlinear editing systems and servers that can accept multiple formats. Facchini points to a few customers of Panasonic's P2 solid-state format that are porting video into a Canopus nonlinear editing system and a BitCentral news server, which will work with various formats. Such stations could easily use another format as well. Enter Sony's XDCAM.

Gaining Back Lost Ground

After selling only 50,000 units of Betacam SX (compared with 550,000 for DVCPRO), Sony has already grabbed some market share with XDCAM, which records video onto optical disc using the same blue-laser technology that Sony employs in its Blu-Ray high-definition DVD format.

XDCAM has beaten P2 to market with both standard-def and high-def formats and has shipped 10,500 units so far. Sony netted deals with CBS, which has bought XDCAM for network news and XDCAM HD for its owned-and-operated stations, and the NBC network.

XDCAM HD began shipping last week, and CBS was already testing it in the lab. CBS-owned stations will start implementing it this spring. NBC is also currently reviewing XDCAM HD, says Bob Ott, Sony VP of optical network products and marketing.

To help drive the market for HD, Sony has intentionally priced the XDCAM HD lower than the standard-def version, partly by using a different imaging sensor. Its high-end XDCAM HD camcorder, the PDW-F350, costs $25,800, while the top-of-line standard-def camcorder, the PDW-530, costs $34,000. A full-featured XDCAM HD recording deck, the PDW-F70, runs $15,990, and XDCAM optical discs cost $30 each. The system uses MPEG-2 compression to store HD video at an average bit rate of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) —actual encoding rates vary from 18 to 35 Mbps—which affords 85 minutes of video storage per disk.

XDCAM's customer base “runs the gamut,” says Ott, and features a variety of stations, including several independents in the Southwest and West. The biggest station-group deal so far is a pending purchase from Hearst-Argyle. Besides news production, the format has been used by 20 different reality shows, including ABC's Extreme Home Makeover.

Ott says reality producers like XDCAM's recording system, which simultaneously creates both low-resolution proxies and high-res clips on the disc. With the low-res proxies, producers can quickly search clips and create a rough edit decision list (EDL) that can transfer only the relevant clips to an Avid or Apple editing system for finishing. Low-res clips can be transferred at 20-40 times faster than real time, while high-res versions are transferred at three to four times real time.

“That's a big-time workflow improvement,” says Ott. “When you do multiple takes, it's nice to be able to review a take almost immediately after you do a scene and thumbnail through them instead of racking tape back and forth. And instead of jamming up my hard drive with 45 gigabytes of high-res material, I can be jamming it with 3 gigabytes of proxy material, then be shipping over an EDL and work in high-res for the actual show.”

CBS News implemented XDCAM last October, installing the optical format through its network hard-news and prime time operations in New York as well as in its news bureaus, integrating it with its existing Avid Adrenaline nonlinear editing systems. In all, the network has taken delivery of 657 pieces of XDCAM gear, which it uses to record in Sony's higher-quality, 50-Mbps IMX standard-def format.

While some broadcasters voiced concerns about how optical disc would perform in cold weather, so far, XDCAM is working very well, says Frank Governale, VP of operations for CBS News. Producers also enjoy the new functionality the low-res proxies provide.

“Overall, it's been very reliable,” says Governale. “We have had no issue shooting in cold weather, nor in hot and humid weather, though we will know more about that this summer. On the anecdotal side of this, there are people in 60 Minutes and broadcast news now who will not shoot unless they are using XDCAM. They like the benefit of the low- res proxies you can put on a laptop for logging and rough-cut storyboarding.”

For CBS, one of XDCAM's selling points over Panasonic P2 was that the relatively low cost of the storage media allows it to replicate the traditional tape-based workflow where appropriate and leave video stored on the optical discs indefinitely.

“It's tremendous to us,” says Governale. “We're not a local station, so we don't bring all the cameras home every night. They might be in Baghdad, and shoots take weeks at a time.”

Gray Television's KWTX, the CBS affiliate in Waco, Texas, has been successfully using XDCAM since early 2005, linking it to a Quantel server and nonlinear editors. KWTX has also used XDCAM to archive some important stories, much as it used to do with Betacam SP tape.

“The very first use we put XDCAM to, we were the pool feed for a trial here in Waco,” says Virgil Teter, VP of news. “We put an XDCAM in the courtroom and a [PDW-]1500 deck in the jury room. Since you can record 90 minutes on a disk, we kept those discs, since it was an important trial for us. We stashed those five discs, and we have gone back to them and pulled video time and time again.”

A Solid (State) Approach

Panasonic has sold P2, which uses the same DV-compression scheme as DVCPRO tape, to more than 200 broadcasters worldwide and delivered over 2,000 units. Initial customers include Media General (see story p. 21), Raycom, Nexstar and Cox Broadcasting, along with a few Fox-owned stations.

“P2 requires some changes in workflow to really exploit the advantages of it,” says Facchini. “A lot of the smaller-market stations have been willing to do that.”

Panasonic's first HD-capable P2 camera is the AG-HVX200, a handheld unit that sells for $5,995 and uses the DVCPRO HD 100-Mbps format. The company will show an upgraded P2 line at NAB with several HD models that are due to ship by year's end, including the AJ-HPC2000, a full-size P2 HD camcorder; and the AJ-HPS1500, a solid-state recorder/player. Both units have five P2 card slots, for a total of 40 minutes of high-def recording (eight minutes of HD per each 8-gigabyte P2 card) or 160 minutes of SD.

The AJ-HPW1500 deck has Gigabit Ethernet, USB, FireWire, HD-SDI and SD-SDI input/outputs, a built-in 3.5-inch color LCD monitor, and a VTR-like control panel complete with jog/shuttle dial.

”It looks like a deck, feels like a deck and works like a deck,” says Facchini, who notes the jog/shuttle dial has a “tension feature” to simulate the feel of pulling tape on a traditional deck.

Panasonic hasn't disclosed pricing for the new P2 HD products, but Facchini says they will be competitive with XDCAM. The one known price is the cost of the P2 card, and it can make some customers worried: Panasonic charges $1,400 for an 8-gigabyte (GB) version. But Panasonic rationalizes that the P2 capital expenditure is amortized by the immediate reduction in maintenance expenses achieved by switching from tape to solid state.

With Flash memory devices becoming ubiquitous in the consumer realm, the cost of P2 storage on a per-gigabyte basis should continue to drop. Facchini says that a 4-GB P2 card has already dropped to $650 list and, when Panasonic unveils 16-GB cards at NAB, the price of the 8-GB card will probably drop to that $650 price point.

“That's typical of the computer realm,” says Facchini.

Ikegami has been playing in the computer realm since 1995 with Editcam, a hard-disk–based camcorder it co-developed with Avid. With Editcam, clips are recorded onto removable media called FieldPaks, which can then be inserted into an adapter and directly accessed by Avid nonlinear editors.

“Once it's in the [SAT-110] box, inside of 10 or 15 seconds, all the clips are online and ready to edit with,” says Jose Rosado, Editcam product manager for Ikegami.

Editcam has been slowly adopted by broadcasters, with fewer than 1,000 sold to date. Major television customers include TV Azteca in Mexico; CHUM in Canada; E.W. Scripps-owned KNXV Phoenix; and the Armed Forces Radio & Television Service. Some NFL teams use Editcams for game films.

With other tapeless camcorders on the market, Editcam's time may have arrived, says Rosado, who says Ikegami is “on the verge” of a major broadcast sale.

Pocket-Size Hard Disk

Early Editcams were bulky, but improvements in hard disks have reduced the FieldPak from the size of a large broadcast-camera battery to a small drive that can fit in a shirt pocket.

Editcam supports multiple compression formats, including standard-def DV and Avid's high-def DNxHD encoding scheme at 145 Mbps. Ikegami has worked with transcoding vendor Telestream and its Flip4Mac product to make Editcam files compatible with Apple's Final Cut Pro editor, via the Material Exchange Format.

The standard-def DNS-33W camcorder costs between $28,000 and $35,000, depending on options, while the high-def HDN-X10 is $55,000. A FieldPak adapter, the SAT-110, that links to editors via FireWire, USB or FireWire connections, holds up to seven FieldPaks and costs around $6,000. The smallest field pack, a 20-GB model, stores 90 minutes of DV 25-Mbps video. The largest, a 120- GB model, will store nine hours of DV, or roughly 90 minutes of HD. Ikegami also offers a solid-state storage option called the RAMPak; a 16-GB unit will probably sell for under $2,000 at NAB.

Thomson's Grass Valley unit is also going after the disk-based acquisition market. Last fall, it introduced the Infinity camcorder, which records video on Iomega REV PRO disks, a pro version of Iomega's REV consumer product, using the DV 25, MPEG-2 (for HD or SD), or JPEG 2000 compression systems. The 35-GB REV PRO disks will cost around $66 each and record about two hours of video. They slide into a $499 Iomega drive that easily connects to nonlinear editors.

Grass Valley calls the Infinity camera a “workflow fountain” because of the multiple formats it supports and its connectivity options, including USB and FireWire links, Ethernet connections, and HD/SDI outputs. Grass Valley has yet to deliver the Infinity cameras, which are being built by hand in the Netherlands, but says they should start shipping around NAB. There are more than 25 customers waiting for beta units, says Grass Valley VP of global marketing Jeff Rosica.

The Iomega REVPRO Drive and Media will offer 100-Mbps sustained throughput for multistream editing and will support low-res and high-res clips, says John Naylor, Infinity program director.

Grass Valley is integrating the Infinity system with various nonlinear editing systems, including its NewsEdit product, as well as Ignite, a Grass Valley production-automation system that can control various newsroom functions, such as audio mixers, switchers and robotic cameras.

Low-Cost + High-def = Big Sales

Shifting to tapeless production represents an economic challenge for most broadcasters, which is why the low-cost HDV format, which uses MPEG-2 compression technology to compress high-def video onto DV-format tape, is gaining popularity. Since HDV outputs both HD and SD pictures, some broadcasters are using it as a lightweight format (see story on KRON, p. 20) for standard-def production. Others see it as an affordable way to get into HDTV; tapes cost $11-$17 each.

Either way, the format is selling fast: Sony has sold over 60,000 HDV units, driven by its popular HVR-Z1U camcorder. JVC has sold 12,000 units, including a deal last week with ABC affiliate WDAY Fargo, N.D., which is buying 18 GY-HD100U “Pro HD” cameras and 15 BR-HD50U VTRs.

“WDAY is currently using SD and editing on [Apple] Final Cut,” says Craig Yanagi, JVC national marketing manager, creation products. “The reason they purchased it is performance versus cost. And it gives them upward compatibility to high-def.”

The JVC camcorder costs $6,295, and the $3,399 deck supports 720 progressive and 1080 interlaced HD. JVC resells a hard-disk drive, the FireStore from Focus Enhancements, which costs $1,995 for 80 GB of storage, or six hours of DV video.

Canon is entering the broadcast HDV market with the XL H1 camera, which sells for $8,999 and offers professional features such as uncompressed HD/SDI output, genlock synchronization for multi-camera shoots, and SMPTE timecode input/output.

Although Canon doesn't make a tape deck, the XL H1 is compatible with Sony HDV decks as well as with Focus Enhancements' FireStore hard drive and works with editing systems from Adobe, Cineform and Canopus, among others.

The XL H1 camera began shipping last November. Simon Kerr, Canon manager of technical marketing and sales training, won't disclose sales figures but says, “We have many, many TV stations and media companies in the testing phase.”